Governor’s policies hang over budget process

It was not the usual town budget season discussion on Feb. 6 when the Wilton Library, Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps and Wilton Economic Development Commission made their budget requests for fiscal year 2018 to the Board of Selectmen.
First Selectman Lynne Vanderslice warned that Gov. Dannel Malloy’s efforts to close an enormous budget gap at the state level is going to mean millions more dollars in expenses for the town.
No one was sure exactly how much Wilton would have to pick up from expenses like teacher retirements that have traditionally been paid by the state, so all eyes were waiting for Wednesday afternoon, when the first details of Malloy’s budget plans were expected to trickle down.
In that spirit of leanness and uncertainty, the money that the library, ambulance corps and economic commission asked for seemed relatively small.
The library asked for  a $13,800 increase, or .5% more, than the current year’s $2.73 million. “Patrons are coming to us and we are satisfying their needs, all metrics are up,” said Glenn Hemmerle, president of the library board, in his presentation to the selectmen at town hall.
The ambulance corps asked for $97,000, which is $500, or 0.82%, more than the current year’s $96,500.
The economic commission seemed most to understand the directive. It asked for $18,000, which is $17,000, or 48.57%, less than the current year’s $35,000.
Even so, “it’s not going to be easy,” Vanderslice warned. The changes made in Hartford could result in several millions of dollars of extra burden to the local taxpayers, no matter how low the town’s departments set their budgets.
The worst part is that the final numbers from the state will not be available until after the Board of Finance hopes to finalize the budget, in March, Vanderslice said.
The selectmen appeared to be digging in for one of the toughest budget years in a long time because of the massive revenue shortfalls at the state level.
“The governor says the wealthier towns can absorb these costs without raising taxes, but that’s not the case,” Vanderslice said at a budget workshop Feb. 4.
In a press release issued Feb. 3, the governor proposed changes in how the state funds teachers’ pensions. Among the changes, he is proposing that municipalities share in the responsibility for funding the retirement system by covering onethird of the employer share of the actuarial cost of the pension system. The governor is also proposing an updated ECS grant formula — the state’s main public education grant awarded to every municipality — that will count current enrollment, recognizing shifting demographics of small towns and growing cities. It will also measure poverty by replacing the free and reduced-price lunch measure with HUSKY A data.
In addition, the governor is proposing to adjust how the state funds special education by decoupling it from the ECS formula. Under the proposal, a new Special Education Grant would be created and funds allocated on an adjusting scale based on a municipality’s relative wealth. Local districts would be required to seek Medicaid reimbursement for eligible special education services. They would continue to share the additional federal revenue with the state. Malloy is also proposing to allocate an additional $10 million toward special education.